Jesus is a living reality who belongs in our lives

  • December 17, 2010
Holy Family (Year A) Dec. 26 (Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)

Years ago a Catholic theologian wrote of one of his first lessons in humility and gratitude for his parents. After leaving home for the monastery, his first letters home were filled with a sort of youthful and self-righteous zeal. He related to his father the routine of rising several times in the middle of the night for prayer while the rest of the world slept. His father’s sage response: Son, your mother and I did that with you and your siblings for years!

Sirach reminds us of the sacrifices parents make for their children. The weaknesses of aging will place many in a dependent role — just as we were in infancy — and the compassion and care that we give is the most effective form of gratitude. The family described in Sirach is one based on patriarchal values as are most families in the ancient world. God does not honour the father above the rest of the family for all are equal in God’s eyes. And the modern image of the family is based more on a model of mutuality than Sirach.

But the principles of compassion and respect are just as valid now as they were when Sirach was written. Our own experience and tradition teach us that family does not stop at the front door and is defined by more than blood or legal agreements. Family is the basic model for human community, whether it is the workplace, religious community, city or nation. The ultimate for family is the human family and the challenge of our own age is to think in more global and inclusive terms.

What does it mean to “fear the Lord”? The response in the psalm encourages us to fear God but is that healthy? Fear in an ancient context meant reverence and deep respect — taking God seriously and doing our best to do God’s will. There is a big difference between fearing God and being afraid of God — the latter should not be part of our relationship.

Colossians provides the model for all forms of human family. It might seem a bit idealistic — much like the TV portrayals of families during the 1950s — but as an ideal it represents the goal to which we should aim. It describes a family, in this case the Christian community, in which the trust level is very high. The members of this family learn from one another — mutual encouragement and kindness as well as gentle correction are the order of the day.

But the essence of love-centred living is summed up in the instruction to let the “word of Christ dwell in you richly.” One’s relationship with Christ must be deep, personal and transformative, and must influence every aspect of everyday life. Jesus is not a doctrine, intellectual concept or object of worship, but a living reality we can invite into our hearts and minds. Once again, older patriarchal and hierarchal understandings of family and community are still present in Colossians. No one should be “subject” to another — subjection is not part of life in God’s Reign. That includes the hapless slaves who are ordered to obey their masters in the verses omitted from this reading.

In the first few years of His human life, the most formative ones for humans, Jesus was a refugee along with His family. They shared the lot of so many people today: without home, exposed to danger and disease and very short of material resources. It is likely that this experience of persecution, injustice and exile influenced the developing consciousness of Jesus and awakened Him to darker aspects of human existence. Yet amidst the dispossession and persecution Jesus was raised in a loving and supportive environment.

External conditions certainly affect our psychological and spiritual development and sometimes in negative ways. It does not, however, determine them. If we are committed to “clothing ourselves with love” and allowing the “word of Christ to dwell in us richly” then we are able to form loving and supportive families of every variety, even in the midst of chaos and suffering. Human relationships have suffered much in our own time. Rather than “family values” being an empty political slogan as it usually is, it describes the way of living that can restore harmony — not domination or inequality — to human societies.